Autistic Book Party, Episode 27 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Kythryne Aisling, “quiet hands” (inkscrawl Issue 10, August 2016)

The title of this poem is a catchphrase commonly used by educators who try to stop autistic and other special needs children from moving around. The poem will be relatable to autistic people who have experienced coercive medication and attempts to extinguish stims. [YMMV, but I liked it]

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Bogi Takács, “Toward the Luminous Towers” (Clarkesworld, August 2016)

[Autistic author] A story about a non-neurotypical person with immense magical power who is coercively drafted into a war effort. (Bogi’s story notes confirm that the protagonist is autistic.) This is a well-written but difficult story; there is a great deal of abuse and coercion, and the ending could be mistaken for suicide by a careless reader. Readers who are put off by this content might want to wait for later installments in the series, which according to the story notes will be more cheerful in tone, and in which autism will play a greater role in the plot. [YMMV, but I liked it]

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Rose Lemberg, “The Book of How to Live” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #209, September 2016)

[Autistic author] A story about a magicless autistic artificer in a magical world, and the beginnings of a revolution. Efronia’s autism is downplayed but recognizeable, particularly in her confusion over people’s motivations and in a period of sensory overwhelm she has towards the end of the story. She is a patient, steadfast person, which is a nice thing I don’t see often enough. The story overall is political in a very good way. [Recommended]

*

Julie Nováková, “Becoming” (Persistent Visions, October 21, 2016)

A story about a woman who becomes the mind of a space station, then is “rescued” and pressured to assimilate back into normal human life by other humans. Ana’s neurotype is written to closely resemble autism, although it’s unclear to me if she was always autistic or if this is somehow a consequence of having been a space station for a long time. (Her synesthesia and physical disability certainly predate her transformation.) Neurotypical society never really gets around to respecting Ana’s autonomy or ability to choose, even when they offer her old position back to her again – but Ana still triumphs by staying true to her own chosen values. [Recommended]

*

Amanda Sun, “What Harm” (Strangers Among Us, August 2016)

A non-speaking autistic boy named Colin is sold to an evil overlord and unexpectedly becomes the overlord’s undoing. This is a cool idea for a story and might have been enjoyable in different hands, but I was very distracted, alienated, and frustrated by the writing style. Colin is constantly othered by the narration in a variety of ways, even when it makes no sense to do so. I suspect that this may have been intentional on the author’s part, an attempt at ironic contrast between the way Colin is described and what he is actually capable of, but it really didn’t work for me. Colin’s deeds effectively undermine other characters’ claims that he is incapable of intentionally affecting anything, but many other ableist aspects of how he is described in the narration remain unchallenged. A well-intentioned attempt that left a bad taste in my mouth. [Not Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 27: Defying Doomsday

I’m going to be doing something a little different today, reviewing an anthology – Short Story Smorgasbord-style – rather than a novel.

The stories in “Defying Doomsday” revolve around a deceptively simple question: what happens to disabled people when civilization ends? Post-apocalyptic literature too often either assumes that we will die – that an apocalypse reduces humanity to “survival of the fittest”, and that disabled people are by definition unfit – or forgets to chart our place in the narrative at all. “Defying Doomsday” consciously takes a different view, showing us disabled people’s stories in the apocalypse, centering their humanity and their desire to survive, even if the ability to do so is in doubt (and while it’s dire for everyone, it’s not always as dire for disabled people as one might assume).

The whole anthology covers a broad spectrum of different disabilities and is well worth a read, even though the grim subject matter can sometimes make it a difficult one. Four stories in the anthology involve autistic characters and/or authors, so here at Autistic Book Party we will review the book by taking a closer look at these four.

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Corinne Duyvis, “And the Rest of Us Wait” (Defying Doomsday, May 2016)

[Autistic author] Set in the same apocalyptic Netherlands as “On the Edge of Gone“, this story focuses on a different main character – not an autistic girl like Denise, but a refugee singer with spina bifida, whose name is Iveta. Unlike Denise, Iveta makes it to a temporary shelter, but things at the shelter start to go wrong, including a permanent loss of electrical power. The plot is less complex than the plot of the novel, but if anything, the ableism of people around Iveta and her uncertainty about her future are depicted with an even more brutal honesty. Iveta truly doesn’t know if she’ll survive, but she fiercely self-advocates and holds on to her humanity throughout. [Recommended]

*

Seanan McGuire, “Something in the Rain” (Defying Doomsday, May 2016)

(ETA: For an additional note about this story, see this post.)

A grimly amusing story in which a teenage girl with autism and schizophrenia is the good guy, a manipulative neurotypical bully is the bad guy, and the bad guy gets her comeuppance in the end. It’s drawn in very broad strokes, sometimes at the expense of psychological accuracy, which will bother some readers; the remorseless means by which the protagonist resolves her problems will bother others. On the whole, though, I found it a satisfying story which is emphatically on the autistic protagonist’s side. [YMMV, but I liked it]

*

Rivqa Rafael, “Two Somebodies Go Hunting” (Defying Doomsday, May 2016)

A story about a boy named Jeff and his physically disabled sister, Lex. I read Jeff as autistic due to a variety of factors which may or may not have been intended that way. I felt that Jeff’s autistic traits were appropriately varied, subtle (at times), and realistic. But I could have done with a bit less focus on Lex’s annoyance with him, even though it turns out to have a non-autism-related underlying reason in the end. [YMMV]

*

Bogi Takács, “Given Sufficient Desparation” (Defying Doomsday)

[Autistic author] Aliens have invaded and convinced some humans to work for them at menial tasks. Both the aliens and anti-alien resistance groups are ableist, but in different ways. The protagonist has motor dyspraxia which the author shares, and which limits their ability to fit in with either group. They end up stumbling onto a third option, but even this option may raise as many problems as it solves. An interesting story underscoring what happens when neither side of a conflict makes room for everyone. [Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 26 and a Half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Gabriela Santiago, “They Jump Through Fires” (Black Candies: Surveillance, April 2015; reprinted in GlitterShip, September 2015)

A horror story about an autistic woman mourning the death of her girlfriend. The protagonist’s grief is described in a way that, to me, feels both distinctively autistic and realistically nuanced. There are sensory aspects, analytical aspects, philosophical aspects, and a strong undercurrent – implied more than explicitly described – of immense confusion and distress. This distress only intensifies as the horror plot progresses and the scene becomes a surreal nightmare: a nightmare which is no less haunting for its mathematical aspects. [Recommended]

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Lynn Kilmore, “By the Numbers” (Crossed Genres Issue 31: Novelette, July 2015)

A story about a math-obsessed autistic professor who discovers that she can communicate with equally math-obsessed aliens. The story makes a point of including realistic details, such as the protagonist (Mel)’s sensory sensitivities and her anti-cure perspective. It also makes a point of sharing and validating Mel’s experience. That said, a few things about it didn’t work for me. Mel is portrayed as a very disagreeable person (and, frankly, a bad professor) in ways that have little to do with autism, but that could easily be conflated with it by an outsider. I’m not opposed to writing autistic protagonists who are disagreeable, but I don’t think this one is handled well. Additionally, mathematical sequences are thought to be one of the easiest ways for two sentient species to establish communication over a long distance, so it feels like a stretch when the other characters (including a physics professor!) conclude that the aliens must be “annoyingly obsessed” like Mel, rather than performing a logical and necessary first-contact protocol. This one tries, but doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. [YMMV]

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Bogi Takács, “Skin the Creature” (Through the Gate, Issue 9, December 2015)

[Autistic author] This is a poem about seizing hold of life. While it’s not “about” autism, mentions of flailing movements and sensory intolerance suggest that its vivacity is a neurodivergent vivacity, one unbothered by its own intensity and oddness, unafraid of standing out, and eager for the next experience. [Recommended]

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Rose Lemberg, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar” (Uncanny Magazine, Issue Eight, January 2016)

[Autistic author] A light, warm, and rather flowery long-distance love story set in Lemberg’s Birdverse world. I read one of the lead characters, Vadrai, as perhaps on the spectrum. She has anxiety, fear of crowds, preference for solitude, aptitude for work involving tiny details, and admitted lack of understanding of how to deal with people. (I also read both characters as demisexual.) These elements are backgrounded and perhaps debatable, which only makes the story more charming to me: we need more love stories involving (arguably) autistic people in which autism is not presented as a major barrier to the characters’ happiness together. [Recommended]

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Merc Rustad, “Iron Aria” (Fireside, Issue 34, July 2016)

[Autistic author] I read the protagonist of this story, Kyru, as autistic because of his expressive speech difficulties and sensitivity to noise. Kyru also gets to be the typical bildungsroman-fantasy protagonist, leaving a home where his relatives underappreciate and misgender him, and traveling to a magical mountain where there are problems only Kyru’s abilities can fix. I especially appreciate the way Kyru’s sensory sensitivities and his magical abilities affect each other, without being at all conflated. An ominous but hopeful story in which an autistic trans hero comes into his own. [Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 26, A Rational Arrangement

Today’s Book: “A Rational Arrangement” by L. Rowyn

The Plot: A polyamorous romance between two bisexual men and an autistic woman, in a pseudo-Regency low-magic fantasy setting in which both bisexuality and polyamory are unheard of.

Autistic Character(s): The heroine, Wisteria Valsiver.

I have never reviewed a romance starring an autistic person before, and this one did not disappoint. Wisteria, the autistic heroine, is portrayed both as a person who is genuinely different from others and struggles to fit in, and as a romantic and sexual person who is both capable and worthy of love.

(This is not to say that asexual/aromantic autistic people shouldn’t be represented. But we’re all too frequently portrayed as people for whom romance is impossible, either due to internal or external factors – so it’s deeply refreshing to see the reverse.)

Wisteria is an extremely intelligent woman, who has traveled the world and been successful in business, yet who finds the intricate social norms of her pseudo-Regency world baffling. She also, like some real autistic people, has a very flat facial affect. Regardless of what she is really feeling, her face barely moves. Neurotypical characters see her as blank, severe, formal and rigid.

The story alternates between Wisteria’s point of view and those of her two romantic interests. Wisteria’s perspective includes some realistic anguish about the feeling that life is full of rules that she is incapable of understanding even though everyone else does. But it also includes a realistic range of interests and feelings about many other things. When thinking about romance, Wisteria experiences a conflict that I find deeply relatable. She has a great deal of romantic and sexual desire, but doesn’t know what to do with it, especially since the people around her act as though such desires don’t or shouldn’t exist – and also doesn’t know who would ever desire her back.

We also see Wisteria from the point of view of her love interests, which allows for a deep exploration of exactly what these men (who are both NT) find attractive about her. Nik, who is initially put off by Wisteria’s flat affect, soon becomes fascinated by her willingness to speak her mind and ignore taboos. Nik is impatient with the level of pretense and superficiality in society around him and he finds Wisteria refreshing. And while some of Wisteria’s candor is involuntary – caused by an inability to understand which topics are socially acceptable – she also genuinely prefers a frank communication style, which means she and Nik get along well.

Justin, Wisteria and Nik’s other love interest, doesn’t analyze his attraction to Wisteria as much. Unlike Nik, Justin is someone who thrives on superficial social connection and uses its superficiality as a defense mechanism. He’s at a bit of a loss at first when trying to communicate with Wisteria. But he’s fascinated by her, particularly when she displays analytical intelligence and courage – both traits he more often associates with men.

These three different perspectives mean the story ends up with a lot of interesting things to say about communication, and about contrasting communication and face needs.

There are also giant talking cats.

Nik, by the way, is a mind-healer – which makes this the second work of fiction I’ve reviewed (after Geometries of Belonging) that portrays a mind-healer’s reaction to an autistic person’s mind. Like Dedéi in Geometries, Wisteria must also deal with a family who would rather make her “normal”. Nik is not pleased when Wisteria’s father asks him to intervene:

The older man scooted to perch at the edge of the couch, lowering his voice. “You know. You saw how she was with you and your parents. That dreadful contract. She doesn’t comprehend that it’s not normal – she’s got this, this—” he broke off, hands waving vaguely.
Nik stared at Vasilver as if he were a new and particularly repulsive kind of bug found crawling on a sleeve. “The technical term you are looking for, sir, is personality.” Icicles dripped from each word.
Vasilver cringed. “Yes, but—”
“I am afraid you have misunderstood the nature of my Blessing. The Savior uses me to heal minds and treat mental illness. Contrary to what you may have been told, a personality is not a disease.”

(Note for squeamish readers: The “Savior” worshipped by Nik and other characters in this setting is not at all related to the Christian god, though this may not be clear in the first few chapters. Another thing that may not be clear early on is the role of demons in Nik’s mind-healing practice. Some mental illnesses, in this setting, are caused by demons, which anyone with Nik’s abilities can drive out. This is the first use of Nik’s abilities which is mentioned in the text. However, it is soon explained that the majority of mental illnesses have more subtle causes. Treating these ones has much more to do with gently encouraging parts of the mind into a different shape, or a different relation with each other.)

If I had a complaint about this book, it would be that it comes down a little too hard on the “a personality is not a disease” side. Wisteria is, by the social model, disabled. She has difficulty facially expressing her emotions, understanding unwritten rules, or engaging in other expected forms of nonverbal communication. She’s marginalized and punished by other characters for these differences. But we never see Wisteria struggling with anything that is not solely socially imposed. She seems to have no difficulties with sensory integration, executive function, or emotional regulation. She is portrayed as a wholly competent, independent person, who would be perfectly capable of doing everything for herself if only people didn’t judge her so harshly.

I don’t want to overstate my problem with this. Some autistic people do fit this profile. It’s not a bad way to be. The problem is that, if poorly handled, a story that solely portrays autism in this way can verge on Aspie supremacy. It can promote acceptance of highly intelligent, hypercompetent autistic people – even admiration – but at the cost of ignoring any genuine support needs that these highly intelligent people might have – and of leaving in the dust all the other autistic people who aren’t able to present themselves as being superintelligent in this way.

A Rational Arrangement avoids the worst sorts of Aspie supremacy, but there are times when it verges close enough to make me slightly uncomfortable. One scene that particularly troubles me is when Nik magically examines Wisteria’s mind. He finds that she is the way she is because the mental structure for rationality is overgrown compared to a neurotypical person, and is connected intimately to everything else in her mind.

Nik does not conclude that Wisteria is somehow superior to other people. (He prefers her to most other people, but since he winds up marrying her, this is entirely natural and necessary.) But the idea that the difference between autistic and normal people comes from rationality – that we are simply more logical than others, and all our difference stems from this – doesn’t sit well with me. It is a point of view too often caught up in internalized ableism and in ableist (and sexist, racist, capitalist) viewpoints about what is and isn’t rational. These viewpoints can, in turn, end up harming other autistic people who are less able to express themselves in a way that NTs recognize as rational or logical, and sowing discord between “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” autistics. Rowyn’s narration is never blatantly supremacist, but it doesn’t do quite as much to distance itself from these viewpoints as I would have liked.

I do not think this is at all intentional on Rowyn’s part. I suspect that she simply didn’t know how loaded a term like “rational” can be in a disability context.

Anyway, for the most part, I really liked the book. Wisteria is a well-drawn, three-dimensional character whose experience of the world rings true to me. The romance is adorable and compelling, all three of the characters had me invested in their struggles, and the setting is pleasant to read about. We definitely need more autistic characters who are allowed to explore love and passion as Wisteria does, whether it makes sense to the NTs around them or not.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 25: A Civil Campaign

Today’s Book: “A Civil Campaign” by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Plot: Characters from the Vorkosigan series take a break from the usual space opera to focus on romance and politics.

Autistic Character(s): Enrique Borgos, a scientist from Escobar.

I will say this up front. Bujold is my fave. And she is an author who, by and large, writes disability very well. Miles, the series’ protagonist, is physically disabled, bipolar, and epileptic, and is a fave of many disabled readers elsewhere. His brother Mark, another viewpoint character, has Dissociative Identity Disorder. (Also Miles’s love interest, Ekaterin, is the best portrayal I have ever seen of a woman struggling to navigate new relationships, or even the idea of new relationships, after leaving an abusive marriage. Thumbs up for that.) All these characters are well-drawn, well-rounded, and full of life.

It’s why I was a little disappointed by Enrique. He’s not a really bad portrayal. If you take all the characters in every book or TV show whose autistic traits are played for laughs, Enrique is one of the better ones. But in a book where several other disabled characters are consistently full people and worthy of empathy, Enrique seems to only intermittently transcend his stereotypes.

Enrique is a business partner of Mark’s. He has genetically engineered a type of bug that produces nutritious food for humans. He would like to cultivate the bugs and sell the results. He needs Mark’s help, though, because he is terrible at finances and marketing. Also, he is wanted by the government of Escobar for fraud.

Although the word “autistic” is not used, Enrique fits comfortably into the stereotype of an autistic scientist who is brilliant at science and terrible at everything else. His bugs do their job perfectly, but he cannot talk about anything but bugs, cannot understand jokes or irony, and forgets to bathe. He is clueless about many practical matters – for example, he mistakes expensive flowers from a florist for bug food. He loves his bugs passionately and believes they are beautiful, but has trouble convincing any of the other, more bug-phobic characters of his point of view.

Enrique’s portrayal at least contains a wider range of traits than those of many stereotype autistic scientists. Rather than simply being arrogant and rigid, he is shown having genuine practical difficulties in a realistic (though comical) way.

I also appreciate that Enrique is neither desexualized nor portrayed as a sexual menace / accidental harasser. He gets crushes on several women during the book, but his ways of approaching them, while odd (rewriting his dissertations’ abstract as a bug-sonnet, for instance), are not intrusive or threatening.

My biggest problem with Enrique can be summed up by a single paragraph of dialogue, in which Mark asks his girlfriend Kareen to help him and Enrique with their business project.

“Um . . . excuse us a moment, Enrique.” Mark took Kareen by her free hand, led her into the corridor outside the laundry room, and shut the door firmly. He turned to her. “He doesn’t need an assistant. He needs a mother. Oh, God, Kareen, you have no idea what a boon it would be if you could help me ride herd on the man. I could give you the credit chits with a quiet mind, and you could keep the records and dole out his pocket-money, and keep him out of dark alleys and not let him pick the Emperor’s flowers or talk back to ImpSec guards or whatever suicidal thing he comes up with next.”

I don’t disagree that a man like Enrique could benefit from practical help and supervision. What makes me uncomfortable is Mark arranging this behind Enrique’s back, and in an infantilizing way, without explaining to Enrique the true purpose of Kareen’s presence or asking what Enrique thinks of it. Mark’s treatment of Enrique sometimes veers close to the trope I discussed in Hawk, in which neurotypical characters use an autistic character for their skills, while hiding their true disdain and disgust for who the autistic character is as a person.

A few things soften the impact of these parts of the book and make them easier to deal with than Hawk. First of all, Enrique is genuinely a business partner of Mark’s. He is not doing the work for Mark’s benefit, or out of a deluded belief that he and Mark are friends. Instead, he will profit monetarily from the results the way Mark does. This is very important.

Second, unlike the secondary characters in Hawk, the cast of A Civil Campaign does not all agree with Mark. Mark is surly and misanthropic, and his remarks should be taken in that context. Other characters’ responses to Enrique range from annoyance to tolerance to kindness. It can be easy to miss, because the majority of the scenes with Enrique in them are from Mark’s point of view. But the female characters, in particular, seem more comfortable with Enrique and more willing to treat him the way they treat most other people.

“Oh, he’s brilliant about the things that get his attention. His interests are a little, um, narrow, is all.”
The Countess shrugged. “I’ve been living with obsessed men for the better part of my life. I think your Enrique will fit right in here.”

In fact, it’s heavily implied at the very end of the book that Enrique has struck up a functioning romantic relationship with a minor character. This is nice to see. However, despite all of this, no one ever actually questions Mark about the way he treats Enrique.

I also have questions about Enrique’s history of fraud, which is somewhat glossed over. Mark states that Enrique didn’t understand why he could not sell five times as many shares in his company as the company possessed. This is about as much as we ever hear about what took place then. I would very much like to know if Enrique did, in fact, understand the law. I would also like to know if anybody tried to explain the law to him at any point, or if it was another thing that Mark tried to handle for him without his knowledge. We don’t hear Enrique’s own thoughts on the matter, so I will have to stay mystified.

It’s not terrible, and is, in some ways, better than most. But with Enrique’s played-for-laughs status through most of the book, and with patronizing and controlling actions toward him going unchallenged, I cannot wholeheartedly give it a recommendation.

The Verdict: YMMV

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 24: Dance For the Ivory Madonna

Today’s Book: “Dance For the Ivory Madonna” by Don Sakers

The Plot: An African civil servant navigates political intrigues and seeks to avenge his parents.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

So, here is a matter worth clearing up at least once: Just because a book has an autistic author doesn’t mean I’m going to like it. This is one that I bought, but simply couldn’t get through. I’m reviewing it now, not in order to single out or shame the author, but to illustrate this point with an example.

The plot, characters, and writing style failed to hold my interest; it also has racial (especially towards Native Americans), gender-y, and parapsychological content that made me uncomfortable. Despite a valiant attempt at Afrocentrism, a lot of it reads like white guilt projected onto a supposedly African protagonist. There is some mildly interesting stuff about AI in there, but since there is no discernible content related to autism, this admittedly lessened my resolve to slog on through the bad parts.

I got about six chapters in and gave up.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

Autistic Book Party, Episode 23: Blindsight

Today’s Book: “Blindsight” by Peter Watts

The Plot: Mentally augmented scientists investigate the source of a mysterious alien signal.

Autistic Character(s): None, but see below.

I’m departing from my usual formula today and reviewing a book with neither an autistic author nor autistic characters. Why? Because, despite the aforementioned lack, this is a book that keeps coming up every so often in discussions of autism in SFF. It shows up on lists of books with autistic characters, it gets recommended to autistic friends, etc. Not super often, but not just once, and not in just one way. So I want to talk about why that is, and what an autistic reader might get out of this book, and why I disagree in general with how people are going about things here.

The character in this book who’s most often described as autistic – or as an unintentional autistic stereotype – is the narrator, Siri Keeton. Siri is not ever described in the book as autistic. Instead, he has a different form of neurodivergence – he was severely epileptic as a child and underwent a radical hemispherectomy. In Siri’s case, the missing half of his brain was replaced with computer circuitry, though in Watts’s fictional future, having such circuitry in one’s brain is not uncommon.

(Siri, by the way, has nothing to do with the iPhone app of the same name, which came later.)

I am not a neuroscientist, and the research I did into hemispherectomies while writing this review was fairly perfunctory. According to what I have read, though, the primary side effects of hemispherectomies are to do with partial paralysis and vision difficulties on the side corresponding to the side of the brain that was removed–not with personality change. Because of brain plasticity, sufficiently young children who get hemispherectomies actually have a fairly good prognosis.

However, for some reason–possibly the computer circuitry–Siri isn’t described as having motor, vision, or cognitive difficulties. Instead, his primary symptom is difficulty feeling or understanding human emotion. Life feels flat and colorless to him, and he has difficulty with empathy or with relating to why people behave in the way that they do. In childhood, he has violent episodes which are attributed to his lack of empathy, and his mother–a noxious, manipulative narcissist–wails about the difficulty of raising a child who lacks the expected mother-child emotional bond. As an adult, he struggles to connect to anyone at all.

Although Siri has difficulty relating to people’s emotions, however, he uses his circuitry to become quite good at learning and analyzing these emotions by rote. In fact, he is so good at this and so perceptive of the small details of people’s expression that he is hired as a “synthesist”. His job is to analyze the speech and behavior of the enhanced humans who are on the mission with him, and report them back in a form that normal humans can understand.

At this point, you might understand why so many people read Siri as autistic. Autistic people often have trouble understanding NT people’s emotions. Many of us end up learning to “fake it” and interpret emotions and facial expressions by rote. Many of us have a flattened or seemingly under-responsive affect, or alexithymia which prevents us from noticing or understanding our emotions. Some of us struggle with violent meltdowns when overwhelmed; some of our parents feel intensely beleaguered and victimized by having to care for us; and most of us have trouble understanding how to form close relationships with NTs, even if we want to.

In fact, there is enough rough correspondence that it feels very plausible Watts might have been influenced, in his portrayal of Siri, by previous acquaintance with autistic stereotypes – even if it wasn’t his conscious intent.

So why do I adamantly believe that Siri Keeton is not autistic?

First, because if Siri was autistic, he would say so. He’s not exactly under-informed about neuroscience, nor shy about discussing the neurodivergence that he actually has. Watts clearly knows what autism is–it’s mentioned briefly once or twice, albeit in problematic ways–so if it was his intent for Siri to be autistic, there would be no reason to hide that information or to disguise it as something else. There’s also no reason to “explain” Siri’s state of being using autism, when there is already a different explanation for it plainly stated in the text.

Second, and even more importantly, because Siri’s resemblance to an autistic person start to unravel when you look at it closely.

Siri’s emotional flatness more closely resembles depression combined with alexithymia than it does autism. While some autistic people experience few emotions, and many have difficulty adequately describing or understanding their emotions, it’s not very common for autistic people to be truly emotionless. It’s much more common for autistic people’s emotions to be odd in ways that NTs have trouble understanding. We might express emotions oddly, by using body language or stims rather than showing a lot on our face, which leads NTs who overrely on faces to underestimate how things affect us. We might show things on our face, but in an atypical way. We might not understand the things that NTs are expected to do or say when they have certain emotions, and be left feeling emotions without knowing what to do about it. We might have very intense emotions–distress, pleasure, excitement, enjoyment, pain, fear, confusion, disgust–which confuse NTs because the things that elicit these emotions are not what an NT would expect.

I know a lot of autistic people who have plenty of emotions thankyouverymuch, but who are accused of being emotionless because they don’t show socially expected emotions at socially expected times and ways, and aren’t even sure how to do so. I don’t find these people emotionless or difficult to read IRL (even though I have trouble reading many NTs). But apparently, to NTs, they are flat and baffling.

Siri’s emotions have none of this oddness, none of this nuance or hidden-ness that I’ve come to expect from other autists. They just aren’t there, or perhaps, aren’t accessible in a way he can describe.

On the other traits from the list, Siri fares slightly better. In fact, his reliance on rote processing to understand NT emotions–and subsequent ability to do so better than the average NT–is one of the things that the book does rather well. Many autistic people do use this kind of ability to help us navigate the world. It’s nice to see an author acknowledge that these methods can be effective, even highly effective, even without an intuitive understanding of why things work the way they do–and even though it doesn’t solve all social problems. In fact, some of Siri’s descriptions of how this works seem to have been lifted straight from real-life autistic people’s descriptions:

I’d spent my whole life as a sort of alien ethologist in my own right, watching the world behave, gleaning patterns and protocols, learning the rules that allowed me to infiltrate human society.

(It should be noted that, towards the end of the book, there is considerable doubt raised as to whether Siri’s synthesist abilities are as effective as he thinks they are. To Watts’s credit, he does not attribute this doubt to Siri’s neurodivergence, but to a belief that no one can really ever be sure what other people are thinking, and to Siri’s usual synthesist protocols being compromised as he gets more and more personally involved in what’s going on, thus falling prey to wishful thinking, projection, etc.)

The kind of social problems that Siri does wind up with are a mixed bag. Some, I found quite relatably sad. Others… Well. Let’s just say that for someone who supposedly knows so much about how NTs interact, he shows a really remarkable inability to understand that people in romantic relationships might desire tenderness, or affectionate words, or anything at all beyond the most reductive possible variety of evo-psych bullshit.

Then again, plenty of young male Aspies in real life are taken in by MRA evo-psych bullshit of even worse types, and Siri can hardly be said to have had healthy relationships modeled for him growing up. (Spoiler: it’s a Peter Watts book: EVERYONE is maladjusted.) So I may be protesting too much on that point.

My biggest problem with the reading of Siri as autistic, though, is not to do with how these traits apply to him, but with all the traits that don’t apply and aren’t even mentioned.

You don’t get autism in real life by taking a regular person and removing certain things. You don’t go into an NT’s head, cut out the bits that handle social/emotional processing, and get an autistic person by doing that. Despite certain corporate logos, we are not NTs with a piece missing.

Instead, an autistic brain–even a “high-functioning” autistic brain (although functioning labels are problematic)–is wildly different from an NT brain on many axes that don’t reduce to missing traits. Senses are hyper- or hypo-sensitive or both at once, or different in even weirder ways. Communication is not just flattened, but different and quirky or difficult or selectively impaired in ways that go far deeper than a lack of social skills. Interests are intense, passionate, and often aligned in directions that make no sense at all to NTs. Movement and expression is not just flattened, but different; stereotypical flapping is of course not the only way to stim, and some people suppress all their noticeable stims, but nearly every autistic person, in their natural state, will not move like an NT. I could go on. There is a wildness to autistic brains, a weirdness (if “weird” is not too pejorative a term), a set of ways of being and doing and thinking that are not just NT ways with pieces missing, but their own ways.

It’s exactly this qualitative different-ness that is missing from Siri.

It’s also exactly this qualitative different-ness that people ignore when they spin the worst forms of propaganda about autism. When people talk about autistic people as incomplete NTs, as having no emotions or awareness, as being missing some essential part that would allow us to have Real Feelings and Real Empathy…

Well.

Siri Keeton is portrayed as being closer to that description than actual autistic people are.

I have a few additional points to make before we wrap up this review. First, I focused on Siri in this review because most of the fan discussions I’ve seen center around Siri as a supposedly autistic character. That’s not the only way to discuss autism in the context of “Blindsight”. In fact, the Wikipedia–somewhat inexplicably to me–describes not Siri, but the book’s vampires as autistic. (Yes, there are vampires. In space. Long story.) This is so baffling to me that I’m not sure what to say about it, except that the vampires really do not strike me that way, and apart from their lack of desire for social contact, I’m not even sure why anybody would read them that way. To me the vampires (and, please note, I liked the vampires) struck me as being something more like superintelligent predatory animals in human form.

The second point is that, according to many sources (I’ve seen this attributed to Watts’s own notes, but haven’t managed to track that part of the notes down), Siri is not meant to be an autistic character–he is meant to be a philosophical zombie. Not to spoil too much, but there is a lot of really interesting stuff in “Blindsight” about consciousness, and about whether or not consciousness is necessary for intelligence, or whether it is desirable at all. A philosophical zombie, or p-zombie, is not a Night of the Living Dead style zombie. Rather, it is a hypothetical living person who acts exactly like any other living person, but who has no actual consciousness. It’s not spelled out in the text itself, but the theory is that Siri is an unreliable narrator, and is actually a p-zombie for most of the book until another character violently awakens him.

I actually find this theory even harder to swallow than the one about vampires, for a number of reasons. First of all, if Siri used to be a p-zombie, then how exactly is he able to describe experiences that he had before being awakened? One answer is that, since p-zombies are outwardly indistinguishable from living people, they can describe events in a way that makes them sound conscious. But this answer is rather vacuous, in my opinion, because if that’s what Siri is doing, then we’re not really reading a book about unconscious p-zombie Siri; we’re reading a book about the conscious person that p-zombie Siri is pretending to be. There is no discernible difference between that book and a book in which Siri is conscious. You could maybe describe Siri as having had a somehow lesser or inferior or shallower version of consciousness, but to say that there was no consciousness just makes no sense.

Second, if Siri is supposed to be a p-zombie, then this makes it EVEN MORE problematic to call him an autistic character. Because autistic people are not p-zombies. But there are an awful lot of people who would like very much to say that we are, or that we don’t have emotions or reactions (just because you can’t read our damn facial expressions), or that it’s not possible we could understand anything (because some of us can’t talk). Or any number of other statements which boil down to the argument that we’re not people and it doesn’t matter how you treat us.

If the first thing that you think of, when trying to imagine how a p-zombie would live, is autism because of what these people say about autism… Then that’s a problem.

(Thinking that you can somehow just suddenly make a supposedly non-conscious person conscious, by violently attacking them, is also pretty gross.)

Third, like I said, I’m not an expert on radical hemispherectomies, and the focus of this review series is on depictions of autism. But I’m pretty sure that stating you can become a p-zombie because of having a hemispherectomy is even more offensive to people who have had this procedure than it is for autistic people.

Pretty sure that goes for the other inaccurate depictions of the results of a hemispherectomy, too.

If you want to read about the experiences of radical hemispherectomy patients in real life, a good place to start might be the Hemispherectomy Foundation.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 22: On the Edge of Gone

Today’s Book: “On the Edge of Gone” by Corinne Duyvis

The Plot: An autistic teenager and her family struggle to survive when a comet hits the earth.

Autistic Character(s): Denise, the protagonist and narrator.

For today’s Autistic Book Party, I have once again partnered with Disability In Kidlit. You can read my review here; the verdict, by the way, is Recommended.

Although Corinne Duyvis is a Disability In Kidlit editor, she was not involved in soliciting or editing this review.

You might be seeing a bit more of me on Disability In Kidlit in the next couple of days.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 21: The Speed of Dark

Today’s Book: “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon

The Plot: When scientists develop an experimental treatment that might cure autism in adults, a group of autistic adults working at a pharmaceutical company is pressured to undergo the treatment to keep their jobs.

Autistic Character(s): Lou Arrendale – the protagonist – along with his co-workers.

Well.

This is by far my most-requested review, and I’m embarrassed that it took me until now to get to. Whenever I say, “Hi, I’m Ada Hoffmann and I review speculative fiction with autistic characters,” someone always wants to know, “What did you think of The Speed of Dark?” And then I hem and haw, because I’ve Heard A Lot About It – Both Good And Bad – But Haven’t Read It. Now I’ve read it, so I’m actually qualified to have an opinion of my own. That’s a relief.

This book is, in my tiny corner of disability fandom, A Big Deal. Possibly The Biggest Deal. Some people loathe it. Some people adore it.

It’s also a cure decision story.

So. If you want to know why I don’t like cure decision stories, you should read that link. After reading “The Speed of Dark”, well, I still don’t like cure decision stories. (I’ll also note that some autistic people do want to be cured – I was reminded of this last fall at Can*Con. Not all autistic people have the same opinions as each other! The opinions stated here are, as always, my own.)

But there’s a lot more to say about “The Speed of Dark” besides “it’s a cure decision story”. Some of that is good, and some is bad.

Here’s the good first. “The Speed of Dark” is more nuanced than I was expecting. Specifically, it shows an awareness – which I hadn’t seen before in any other cure narrative – of the complicated power dynamics that go into discussions of cures. Here’s a quote from the first scene:

If they aren’t going to listen, why should I talk?
I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that I value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say…
Dr. Fornum crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals; the book sys so. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.
What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals. The ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.
I know some of what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that I can read. She thinks I’m hyperlexic, just parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me.

From the very beginning, Moon writes Lou as a character who is aware of much more than what “autism professionals” believe he should be aware of; who is aware, and critical, of the ableist attitudes that surround him; and who has learned to make compromises, as real autistic people do, in order to navigate that ableist world and survive.

That ableist world has an impact on the major decisions of the story. Lou and his co-workers are not asked politely if they would like to be cured. They are pushed towards a cure, through most of the book, by a deeply unlikeable, pointy-haired CEO who has decided that he will fire them if they choose to remain autistic – even though the job at which they work is specifically one that takes advantage of their autistic strengths in pattern recognition. (Lou is a patterns thinker, and it’s implied that his co-workers all are as well.) It’s a deeply unjust and rather terrifying situation, and also illegal, as many characters in many scenes point out. Doubly so because the “cure” is an experimental treatment, never tested on humans before. There’s no guarantee it will work. There’s no way to predict exactly how much and in what ways the characters will change if they go through with it.

Lou thinks and talks about the injustice of his situation – as he should. He’s deeply confused by it and unsure of what to do for most of the book, but he’s aware that this is something his company should not be doing, that it’s not fair to make him and his co-workers choose between invasive medical treatment and losing their jobs, that the people involved – regardless of what they might say – do not have his best interests at heart. This makes his ruminations about what to do a good deal more interesting than the ruminations of a typical cure decision story protagonist.

This brings us to one of the things I liked less about the book, which is the bizarre disparity in what kind of actions different characters can take against this injustice. Lou is aware that his situation is unfair; everybody in the situation is aware of this. But the people who get to react against it fully – the people who get to say, holy shit, this is fucked up and dangerous and illegal as hell, this is not okay, Lou, let me get you a lawyer – are not autistic. Invariably, for some reason, they’re Lou’s neurotypical friends.

I want to be careful how I say this. It’s not that Moon thinks neurotypicals are great. There are a lot of bad NTs, like the people who devised this experiment in the first place, and Lou’s boss, and Lou’s stalker (yes, there is a stalker subplot, which if nothing else is a welcome distraction from the cure decision). There are also NTs who mean well but are mostly ineffectual, such as Lou’s immediate supervisor (who frustrates me, and that’s all I’m going to say about that). There are also good NTs. This is fine. The good NTs are, without exception, able to stand up for Lou, to insist that what’s happening to him is wrong, and to offer concrete help. They’re never ableist by accident or oblivious to an ableist issue. They even, mysteriously, know more about neurodiversity issues than Lou does:

“Lou, you’ve been holding out on us. You’re a genius.”
“It may be a splinter skill,” I say. Tom’s expression scares me; if he thinks I am a genius maybe he will not want to let me fence with them.
“Splinter skill, hooey,” Luciea says. She sounds angry; I feel my stomach clenching. “Not you,” she says quickly. “But the whole concept of splinter skills is so… antiquated. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses; everybody fails to generalize many of the skills that they have.”

All of which would also be fine, except that the other autistic people in the story never get to have these traits. The autistic people in the story have a community where they genuinely interact, and they can be confused and upset at what’s happening to them, but that’s about as far as their self-advocacy (or their advocacy for each other) ever goes.

The only autistic person who consistently and emphatically says that she does not want a cure, that a cure is not okay, is a woman named Linda. Lou and Linda don’t particularly like each other. Linda’s beliefs about autistic community are so extreme that she actively discourages Lou from making any friends who aren’t developmentally disabled; he should “be with his own kind”. Linda’s friend Emmy, who is not autistic, but has an unspecified related disability, takes these beliefs even further, and takes to following Lou and harassing him because she heard that he has a crush on an NT woman. (Emmy is not the stalker in the stalker subplot, but it’s implied that she could be. I should note here that I’m sure people with these beliefs exist somewhere, but I’ve never encountered them, and I follow a lot of activist-type people who REALLY hate cures.)

Autistic people in “The Speed of Dark” can’t seem to advocate for themselves unless they are unlikeable extremists – and even then, their advocacy is not particularly effective. Yet several NT characters, even though it’s not clear how they learned anything about neurodiversity before knowing Lou, get to advocate for Lou perfectly.

People talk about White Saviors in fiction who somehow get to be better at solving POC’s problems than the POC themselves are. I’m tempted to call Lou’s friends Neurotypical Saviors, but that might be appropriative. Let’s just say that it does not reflect my experiences with autistic and NT people in real life.

Anyway, apart from having some neurotypical savior friends and wondering what to do about being pressured into a cure, Lou gets to do several other interesting things. He competes in a fencing tournament and does quite well! He deals with his stalker in what ends up being a satisfying manner. He has philosophical thoughts about physics. There’s a lot of material in here that’s actually pleasant to read, and Lou spends a lot of time learning and growing, finding that he can embrace change and do things he hadn’t thought he could do.

So what does the learned and grown Lou end up eventually doing about his cure decision? To talk about that, I’m afraid we will have to go behind the cut, because there are SPOILERS. Big ones. ENDING SPOILERS. Seriously – this is a book about which a LOT of people say, “I liked it except for the ending.” So to talk about what I really think of “The Speed of Dark”, I am going to have to tell you the /entire/ ending. In detail. You’ve been warned.

Ready?

Continue reading “Autistic Book Party, Episode 21: The Speed of Dark”

Autistic Book Party, Episode 19 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Jim C. Hines, “Chupacabra’s Song” (Kaleidoscope anthology, 2014; also available by itself on Amazon and Smashwords)

A story about Nicola Pallas – a minor character from the Libriomancer series – her father’s veterinary clinic, and her discovery of magic. Nicola is visibly different, humming, waving her hands, and going nonverbal under stress. She’s also shown as significantly more human, and more compassionate, than the apparently NT wizards she encounters, and she ends up outsmarting them. There’s a theme of acceptance here, but it doesn’t hit you over the head. [Recommended]

*

Bogi Takács, “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” (Capricious, issue 1, September 2015)

[Autistic author.] Autism is not foregrounded in this story, but I did read the narrator as autistic due to eir sensory seeking, intense anxiety when confronted with uncertain/unfamiliar things, the use of a weighted blanket, and other things. Regardless of whether you read it that way or not, it’s a nice story of a nonbinary-gendered person in a queer D/S relationship on a magical spaceship, who gets swept up in events when a political dignitary abruptly requests passage on eir ship for mysterious reasons. I enjoyed it. [Recommended]

*

Addison Trev, “The Beachcomber of Dong Hoi” (Breath & Shadow, volume 12 issue 4, fall 2015)

[Autistic author.] This is the story of a mentally disabled beachcomber and his weekly routine; a speculative element emerges only near the end. It is a story which is told with precise detail and empathy, and which takes the title character’s concerns seriously. Many developmentally disabled people do end up in life roles like this one, in which they vaguely eke out an existence on the margins of society. It’s important that these characters be portrayed with the kind of dignity that Trev’s narration provides. I did find the ending a bit facile, and some of its implications unfortunate – but it’s the ending that hammers home that yes, this really IS intentionally an autism story. [YMMV]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye” (The Journal of Unlikely Academia, October 2015)

[Autistic author.] This is a sharp and biting commentary on Western academia which will have academic readers glumly nodding their heads in recognition. An autistic student, or perhaps the ghost of an autistic student, plays a brief but pivotal role. It has to do with the politics of who is and is not welcomed in academic spaces, rather than with who the student is as a person – but is still, I suspect, of great interest to the kind of person who reads Autistic Book Party. [Marginal, but I liked it]

*

A.C. Wise, “And If the Body Were Not The Soul” (Clarkesworld, October 2015)

I, for once, was dense and did not read the protagonist in this story as autistic – but his asexuality and unusual sensory/bodily experience are impossible to miss. A lot of commenters, including autistic commenters, did see autism. (It could be because my own experience as an autistic person does not include Ro’s kind of touch-phobia – but it is a real and common experience for many!) Whatever you want to call Ro, he’s portrayed with nuance and respect. He is not protrayed as broken or less than the characters who enjoy touch, even if he is insecure enough to feel that way at times – and his insecurity, while providing background tension, is not the driving conflict of the story. Instead, Ro gets to do cool things, make decisions with agency, get involved in racial politics, and figure things out about aliens. [Recommended]